Over Memorial Day weekend (it’s been a busy few weeks), the Lady and I were clearing out our DVR queue, and found to our mutual delight that one of us had, months earlier, before the Incident, recorded the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert. We poured some wine, hit “play” and had a grand old time: some of the performances were pretty perfunctory (I’m looking at you Lou Reed, may you rest in peace), some were transcendent (shiiiiiit, Richie Havens, may you rest in peace), and for a couple of hours, we reveled in a small, sad, satisfying respite from our frightening and troubled times.
Then about 2/3 of the way through, this happened:
That’s Sinead O’Connor, at the peak of her fame and success as a musician, being booed mercilessly; starting, then stopping, then starting and stopping again to perform the scheduled Dylan composition; screaming a tough-to-make out recitation of her re-work of Bob Marley’s “War”; and collapsing off stage in Kris Kristofferson’s arms.
This was, dropped in the middle of our carefree intermission from the Fallout, weird. We were kids when this happened, and we had some vague recollections that Sinead O’Connor was “controversial” and “political,” and most people sort of hated her. And you can sort of see why considering how angry and confrontational and unladylike she seems in that clip…but for the life of us, we could not place what the damn controversy was.
So we Wikipedia’d, and found this:
Turns out (and if you were older than 10 at the time, or were just substantially more mature, and this is not a revelation to you, then kudos) that just two weeks prior, Sinead O’Connor had ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL.
And we said “ohhhh yeah, I remember that,” and “I remember everyone was furious with her….why did she do that again?!?”
And of course, it was because of this:
Except that that Boston Globe story – which shocked the world with revelations of hundreds of victims of priest abuse in Boston alone, and set in motion a worldwide unfurling of a despicable pattern of sexual abuse, and unconscionable cover up, by the Catholic Church – was published almost 10 full years after Sinead O’Connor let out her primal scream.
There were murmurs of priest sex abuse for years prior to 1992, and by that time it appears there was a fairly active movement (one that had strong ties to Ms. O’Connor’s native Ireland) aimed at exposing this tragic abuse of power. But the conventional wisdom, worldwide, that the priests who were caught doing this stuff were lone wolfs, bad apples, to be sure, but not at all indicative of a rotted, bad barrel.
We were kids in 1992, so our perceptions of the cultural and political zeitgeist were as surface level, and as reflective of conventional wisdom, as you can possibly imagine. And our recollection of the conventional wisdom regarding Sinead O’Connor was that, after the SNL incident, she was basically toxic.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I can report that Joe Pesci hosted SNL the following week, taped the Pope’s photo back together and apologized, telling the world that we would like to give Sinead “such a smack.” I can report that Ms. O’Connor – who was on the cusp of international stardom in 1992 – became a pariah, her careered stalled, but that she kept screaming, talking about this issue every chance she got.
According to Wikipedia, Madonna, one of the very biggest stars in the world at the time, was particularly derisive of Ms. O’Connor, and said a lot of nasty, ugly stuff while promoting her latest album. But “bold” and “controversial” Madonna also took a beat to perfectly distill the weak-kneed conventional wisdom at the time, saying at one point: “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people…If she is against the Roman Catholic Church and she has a problem with them, I think she should talk about it.”
I was 10 at the time, so Madonna’s cowardly summation fit squarely into my limited worldview: if you have a “problem” with the Catholic Church (and heaven forbid we verbalize the “problem” itself, which is quite unseemly), then please talk politely about it, be a goddamn lady, and stop screaming and yelling in a way that’s going to hurt people’s feelings!
But I’m old now, and out of patience, so Madonna (circa 1992), with respect, grow the fuck up. Great job not just turning a blind eye to this nightmare, but actually using your considerable celebrity to help bury it. Way to play a not inconsequential role in our society turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of kids for years. Hope you sold a lot of records.
And as for the conventional wisdom that attacked and berated Sinead O’Connor as offensive and confrontational, that dismissed her as the quintessential entitled celebrity bitch, it is difficult to come to terms with how hopelessly wrong we were. This was not some polite disagreement: the Catholic Church, without conscience, ruined people’s lives to cover up this despicable shit. Sinead O’Connor was, in 1992, about to become a really big star, but she took a rocky, perilous road no other celebrity anywhere near her stature was willing to take, and she paid for it. And rather than apologizing, or trying to “rehab” her image, or giving a damn about her career, she kept talking, kept screaming.
And it turns out she was right. We made Sinead O’Connor a pariah for tearing up a photograph, we mocked her and attacked her and told her she needed to be more polite, to smile more, scream less. But it turns out the guy in that photograph was, at best, consciously turning a blind eye to the rampant sexual abuse of children, despite having the absolute power to stop it. And it turns out the Catholic Church exploited our misguided insistence on politeness, it abused our trust and demanded faith – for another decade after Ms. O’Connor’s primal scream – in its sacred “institution.”
Just over one month ago, I wrote a post warning that “[w]e’re running out of time,” and pegged the month of May, 2017 – in the aftermath of the Comey firing – as a critical inflection point for American democracy. It’s June now, and needless to say, I’m not optimistic.
But when I express this to friends and family – more often than not people who loathe President Trump, who are deeply troubled by this national nightmare – I get a response that, while hardly as dismissive as Madonna circa 1992, stems from the same instinct to tamp down and downplay anything that feels like a scream. “Don’t be so dramatic! I know it’s bad, but it’s not the end of the world, we’ll beat him in four years, and how much damage can he really do? After all, this is America!”
This is a natural reaction. We want to believe that our system, our institutions, our common sense of justice and decency and morality, are stronger than this. And in this case the institution we are so eager to put our faith in is America itself. If it was hard in 1992 for a nation of predominantly non-Catholics to entertain the possibility of a dangerously corrupted Catholic Church, it is damn near impossible for us to admit to ourselves that America – our time-honored institutions, our shining beacon of a democracy – may not be able to withstand an assault from this guy:
The logical mistake of America’s collective rebuke of Sinead O’Connor in 1992 – “be more polite, more ladylike … try, like, having a conversation instead of yelling and screaming” – was to presume that if there actually was a problem, the Catholic Church would obviously want to acknowledge, address and fix it. Quite the contrary, the Catholic Church would do everything in its power – destroying people’s reputations and lives – to deny the problem existed.
Our creeping collective mistake in this present nightmare is similar, but distinct. We presume that our institutions, because they have endured for 200+ years, are equipped to handle this unprecedented threat. But this ignores the reality that the very people in control of those vaunted institutions are actively working to subvert them, to bend them and manipulate them to serve masters other than the American people.
We watch these Congressional hearings, we hear this devastating, thrilling testimony about a rogue, unhinged, unfit president, and we expect justice. But justice is a concept, an ideal, and – as the events of the last two days made all too clear – only sometimes a reality. And when the institutions charged with delivering justice are corrupt, when the people in charge of those institutions are willing to shamelessly bend them to their own means, the concept of justice itself can be utterly perverted.
I follow the steady drumbeat of Russia news as studiously and hopefully as anyone; I believe there is already more than enough “there” there to have sunk any other presidency, in any other (less stupid) time. I cling to hope that Republicans in Congress will finally put country (and safety, security, the Constitution, basic human decency) above party, that the latest breaking news – whether with regards to Russia or any other daily reminder of how fundamentally unfit this man is – will be the breaking point. But it never happens. In the hands of a feckless, craven, subservient Republican Congress, our vaunted system of checks and balances is demonstrably not up to the task.
And I am hopeful for 2018, and 2020. President Trump is deeply unpopular, and appears to have no grasp of how to woo anyone other than the steadfast base that wallows in his sad, needy, cult of constant grievance. And every policy F.A.T. and Republicans in Congress have enacted or proposed is absurdly unpopular, and also happens to be shockingly bad public policy: Americans hate it now, imagine how they’ll feel when it actually takes effect? So yes, all things being equal, in a functional democracy, I would expect a sweeping repudiation of Republicans in 2018, and of President Trump in 2020.
But we are already a democracy subject to severe meddling and malfunction: set aside the Russia conversation altogether, and the stories regarding intentional voter suppression in 2016 are staggering. Republicans pursue policy that the majority of Americans hate because their focus is not on winning over the majority, it’s on finding corrupt ways to win – cheating, stealing, subverting – without the majority. Now they’ve cast their lot with a shameless huckster who has shown open disdain for American democracy, who tells outrageous, provable lies to lay the groundwork for massive voter suppression, and who has the power of the presidency at his disposal.
Am I hopeful for 2018, 2020? Of course, but the elections will not be fair. And given how far we have already fallen – in just six months – it could be so much worse than that.
I am a guy who writes too-long blog posts on the weekend. It would be an insult to Sinead O’Connor’s courage to attempt to compare my screams to hers. But I am screaming, I am sounding every alarm I can, and the louder I scream, the more adamant the pushback that I’m too damn dramatic, that I should be more polite and understanding, that “this is America, let’s not overreact.”
But that’s the point, that’s the agonizing reality I’m living right now: this is America, we are under attack, and the stakes are too damn high to stop screaming.
And if you are inclined to ignore me, I’d urge you to consider the others sounding these alarms: not just Democrats and liberals, but lifelong Republicans too. People from war torn countries, people who have watched their nation devolve into autocracy, are warning us, telling us what to look out for. The very best and brightest among us, people with a lifetime of experience and wisdom in government, people who have studied the unique challenges and pratfalls of civilized society for decades, are screaming from the rooftops.
I’m not saying anyone has to join that chorus, but we do ourselves and our country a disservice when we dismiss it outright, just because the package it comes in – oftentimes a primal scream – makes us uncomfortable.
I will gladly grant the premise that I could be wrong; I pray, to a God I don’t all that much believe in, that I am wrong. If you can grant the premise that this chorus of screamers – not just one uppity female pop star, but a chorus of our best and brightest, plus one annoyingly wordy blogger – might be right, then these dire, extraordinary times merit an extraordinary response. And the occasional scream.